The Artist formerly known as The Iceman: a brush with fame
I have blogged before about the comic performance artist legend that is The Iceman. The last couple of times he has cropped up, it has been as a fine artist (I use the words loosely) not a performance artist. As a stage performer, he has been described as:
“…a living saint” (Stewart Lee)
“…incredible” (Mike Myers)
“A figure of mythic proportions” (Independent)
“inexplicable” (The Stage)
“shit!” (Chris Tarrant)
“brilliant” (Simon Munnery)
“truly a performance artist” (Jo Brand)
AIM’s painting of Jo Brand (left) understanding The Iceman
He sent me an email this morning asking if I wanted to write another blog about him because he feels my blog-writing style has “sort of subtle undercurrents where sarcasm meets genteelness” and, where he is involved, has “a mixture of awe, bafflement and sneaking respect.”
Those are his words.
He added: “I think you should keep it short and pithy. Do you do short blogs? As my sales increase I am going to keep you very busy indeed so, for your own sanity, it should be more like a news flash.”
Eddie Izzard/Iceard (left) upstaged/icestaged by The Iceman
The Iceman – who now prefers to be called AIM (the Artist formally known as the Ice Man) – measures his fine art success against van Gogh’s sales of his art during his lifetime.
He told me that, yesterday, he “nearly tripled/then quadrupled/then quintupled van Gogh’s sales record… but, in the end, I just tripled it as the buyer couldn’t stretch to it…”
‘It’ being an “confidential but significant” sum.
Buyer Maddie Coombe overawed in the presence of the AIM
He sent me photographs of the buyer – “discerning collector” and dramatist Maddie Coombe – who topped an offer by another buyer who desperately tried to muscle-in on the art purchase.
Ms Coombe says: “I bought a very colourful and bold piece of the Iceman’s work. I loved it because of its colour, composition and bold brush strokes. I will keep it forever as a memory of the time I have spent being his colleague – a man unlike any other!”
Comedian Stewart Lee (right) and poet John Dowie carrying The Iceman’s props with pride – a specific and vivid memory.
The Iceman says: “The sale was a formal business agreement born of an authentic appreciation of AIM’s art/oil paintings in a secret contemporary art gallery south of Bath – It’s in a valley.”
Explaining the slight element of mystery involved, he explains: “Being a cult figure I can’t be too transparent with anything,” and adds: “AIM is now painting not from photos but from specific and vivid memories insice the ex-Iceman’s head, resulting in even more icetraordinary imagices.
“One gallery visitor,” he tells me, “was heard to say It looks like it’s painted by a three year old which, of course I thought was a huge compliment.”
AIM’s most recent painting – Stand-up comedian, activist and author Mark Thomas (right) gets the political message of The Iceman’s ice block at the Duke of Wellington’s public house many years ago
Iceman holds a Christmas card inside the Royal Festival Hall. (And why shouldn’t he?)
At the beginning of December last year, I received 10 e-mails and 22 JPEGs of paintings of blocks of ice from my speciality act chum The Iceman. His stage act involves melting blocks of ice. That is his entire act. I blogged about it.
He said he was now calling himself AIM – Anthony Irvine Man – and suggested I should write a new blog entitled:
THE PAINTER FORMERLY KNOWN AS THE ICEMAN BREAKS/DOUBLES VINCENT VAN GOGH’S RECORD, SELLING 2 PAINTINGS IN HIS LIFETIME.
Since then, we have had a chat about it. We met in the Topolski Gallery/Bar under Waterloo Bridge in London.
“You told me the man who bought your painting,” I said, “was going to explain why.”
“Yes. He wrote to me,” said The Iceman, taking out a piece of paper. “He says: The paintings of The Iceman are honest, charming and…”
“Cheap?” I suggested.
“Honest, charming and fascinating” – his faux-naïf paintings
“No,” said the Iceman. “I got him into three figures…The paintings of The Iceman are honest, charming and fascinating. He is an artist whose practice has developed at a glacial rate over a lifetime and each act seems considered but not over-thought. His fixation on ice, the melting process and how that relates to him – his life experience – in a symbolic way – is intriguing and perhaps even deep…
“He wants to buy a second picture. He says: The faux-naïf handling of paint is suggestive of Basquiator perhaps Dubuffetand art brut. In any case, it is defiantly anti-slick or perhaps anti-consumerist. It is refreshingly populist work, like a kind of ascetically-charged graffiti, piquant piracy, shades of Nolan’s Ned Kelly series.”
“So you are at last being properly considered as a serious artist?” I asked.
“Yes. I feel it’s time to do a proper exhibition. I’ve done about 137 paintings now. They need to be displayed en masse. I have finally found my métier. I think I am just going to keep producing. My subject matter is rather consistent.”
“Blocks of ice,” I said.
“Yes,” said The Iceman.
“So are you not going to do live performances any more?” I asked.
“I don’t think so. I never realised I was a painter until this late in life.”
“If Hitler had realised his destiny was to be a painter,” I suggested, “we wouldn’t have had all that trouble.”
The Iceman hard at work in his outdoor English studio in 2014
“I am thinking,” said The Iceman, “of increasing production: doing one in the morning, one in the afternoon and one in the evening.”
“Won’t that devalue your unit retail cost?” I asked.
“You are right,” mused the Iceman. “Maybe I should slow production down instead.”
“All your paintings are based on photographs?” I asked.
“Yes. Stills of my blocks of ice. Or stills of moving pictures of my blocks of ice. I could not paint without the photo.”
“Actually,” he said thoughtfully, “that might be my next series of paintings. The imagination series. I think I have developed my own style.” There was a long pause. “I don’t know what my style is, but it is recognisable. On my website, I’ve got every painting I’ve ever done. I sold one photo off my website – Block 183 – so, technically, I have sold two pictures: one was an oil painting and one was a photograph.”
“You are on a roll,” I said encouragingly. “How have you survived financially?”
“I work with teenagers,” said The Iceman. “It’s educational work. Helping them realise their potential. But I don’t play football.”
“Ah,” I said.
“I have done some odd things,” The Iceman continued. “I did a boxing kangaroo act. I was the referee in a duo with a live kangaroo. Circo Moira Orfei in Italy. She was a fading film star. I had to go round saying Cugino! Cugino! Her cousin was called Filippo.”
“Did you live in a tent or in a caravan?” I asked.
“I lived in a truck with the kangaroo – there was a partition. We had a kangaroo and then collected a younger one from the airport, so I ended up living in the truck with two kangaroos. The poor young one got a lot of rollicking from the older one.”
“How long were you with the kangaroos?” I asked.
“A couple of months. I had to run away on Christmas Day.”
“I had a fracas in the audience and the acrobats were angry because it was at the moment of their ‘death-defying balance’ and so they were all out to get me because I caused them to stumble. I ran away and they ran after me running away, but they didn’t catch me.”
“It’s not their area of expertise,” I suggested.
“I suppose not,” said The Iceman.
“Tell me more about the boxing kangaroo,” I prompted.
A proud tradition – a poster from the 1890s
“We did the routine in a proper boxing ring and we knocked each other out – the other guy, Filippo, and me – quite a slick physical banging routine. Then I had to get the kangaroo by its tail and drag it into the ring. The first day, one of the roustabouts from Morocco tripped me up and I fell on the kangaroo’s bottom, which got a big laugh. Once the kangaroo was in the ring, I was supposed to give him his mating call and irritate him and dig him in the ribs. Then he gets angry and tries to get hold of Filippo.”
“Why didn’t he try to get hold of you?”
“Because Filippo was teasing him as well and he was more experienced in annoying the kangaroo. Filippo told me I was too kind to the kangaroo in the ring. The poor thing had boxing gloves on, so it looked like he was boxing but he was trying to grab Filippo round the neck. Sometimes, he would get him round the neck and one of my jobs was to release the forepaws if the kangaroo was really angry. If the kangaroo was really, really angry, he might hold onto Filippo with his forepaws and kick him to death with his hind legs. Kangaroos have very strong hind legs but their forepaws are less strong.”
“You did this job just for kicks?” I asked.
“There was a lot of comedy,” said The Iceman, “because he would kick Filippo and I, as referee, had to tell the kangaroo off.”
“You never got kicked?” I asked.
“Not seriously. His irritation was more directed at Filippo… I have slightly mixed feelings talking about all this. It is quite sad when you think about it. But I was young. The animals I felt sorriest for were the tigers. The circus had elephants who killed some of the people.”
Death defying circus stunts were common
“In the audience?”
“No, the people looking after them. But the tigers just went round and round. Terrible conditions, really. I’m not really very pro-circus, animal-wise. Looking back, it was all a bit sad, really. That image of the tigers is the one that haunts me most. They had gone mad and were going round and round and round.”
“You toured with this circus?” I asked.
“Not for very long, because I had to run away from the acrobats.”
“When was this?”
“When circuses were circuses.”
“Yes. So many animals. Birds, vultures and incredible trapeze artists. There was a clown who played the saw. Every cliché.”
“Why were you working in this circus?” I asked.
“I used to go to clown workshops at the Oval House in London. To me, to be a proper clown in a big circus was my apotheosis. Is that the right word?”
“I have no idea,” I said. “Why an Italian circus?”
“Because I met the mother of a clown. His father had died in the ring.”
“Killed by an elephant?”
“I have no idea. It seems unlikely.”
“That was your only circus experience?”
“Yes. I moved on…”
“Experimental theatre. In those days, there were a lot of small-scale touring theatres.”
“I have never painted anything without quite a strong feeling.”
“You should paint kangaroos,” I suggested.
“No. Only ice blocks. That’s my genre. To depart from that would spell doom. Each picture I have done is unique.”
“They are all blocks of ice,” I pointed out.
“But they are each unique,” said The Iceman. “I have never painted anything without quite a strong feeling.”
“Quite a strong feeling of…?” I asked.
There was a pause. “I’m not sure,” he replied. “That is a very good question…. Maybe a feeling of bringing something alive long after the event when it existed.”
She is writing what sounds like a fascinating university dissertation on Humour in Graphic Art and I told her I don’t think her father is actually a comedian at all – he is a performance artist with humour in everything he does. Art ain’t just Tracey Emin’s unmade bed in a Saatchi gallery.
A famous English comedienne once wisely told me that, because of the money involved, the best creatives go into the ad industry, the second best go into television and the third-rate go into PR for the publishing industry because there’s no money into it.
People complain about advertising hoardings in the street but they wouldn’t complain about a new art gallery which has free entry and, every day, changes the art it displays. That’s what ads are. You drive down the road or you walk down the street or you take a tube train anywhere in London and you’re travelling through an ever-changing art gallery. Some of the most creative people in the country are creating continually visually and verbally exciting works of often high originality, displaying them across the country at roadsides, on buses, in trains and stations… and these very creative and usually very costly visual works are constantly being changed for something new and equally visually stimulating and original.
In the Renaissance, art was sponsored by people who had the most money – the Church and the Medicis. The same applies today. The ad industry, using commercial businesses‘ money is sponsoring sometimes great, though always transient, art. I still remember some of the images in a famously surreal Benson & Hedges ad campaign of long ago. They were a bloody sight better than Van Gogh’s awful pictures of sunflowers or dodgy-looking chairs. And I remember the Benson & Hedges cinema ads. Particlarly one shot in the desert with a lizard and an isolated luxury house with a swimming pool.
People complain about ads between TV programmes but they don’t complain about the quality of up-market art films on TV or in the cinema. Per minute of screen time, an ad very often costs more than a mega-budget movie. And often both are directed and designed by the same people.
The ad industry attracts, most often, the brightest, best, most creative visual talents in the country because that’s where the money is. The best graphic artists, the best photographers, the best directors, make-up artists, designers and cinematographers earn their living from the ad industry. The highly-regarded British film industry is built on the financial cashlow provided by our ad industry which supports and stimulates the talents of the best creatives.
It’s bloody great for Art and ‘twas ever thus.
But what I don’t understand is this…
It seems to me that US ads are concerned with selling the qualities of the product – all those dull shampoo ads telling you the scientific reasons why the product supposedly works.
It feels like UK ads are more concerned with making jokes, adding surreal images, linking the product to a general but very vague happy feeling. What are those Guinness ads about? They’re not about the quality of the beer – not when you are watching Peruvians doing odd things in Andean villages. What are the Marks & Spencer ads about at Christmas? Not about the products they sell; this year it’s all about Peter Kay and Twiggy prancing around very entertainingly.
US ads have a tendency towards the hard-sell. UK ads seem to be soft-sell sometimes to the point of the joke or the surreal image overwhelming the product. The artists seem to have taken over the asylum.
What’s that all about?
Is it because, as American comic Lewis Schaffer currently says in his act, the British like to define themselves by their humour – or, as Colonials like him would say, humor?
All countries believe they have a sense of humour/humor but Britain, suggests Lewis, is the only country that actually thinks its strongest defining factor is its humour. Even Margaret Thatcher had to try to appear to have a sense of humour to soften her image. Being seen as ‘strong’ is not enough in a British leader; he/she has to be seen to have a sense of humour.
President Obama has to show humour too, for PR reasons. But Americans do not see humor as their best characteristic.
The Americans arguably like to see their best quality as being go-getting and full of energy. The French define themselves by their food or as great philosophers. The Germans are efficient. But the British think their single main national defining characteristic is their humour.
To an extent, you can get the feel of a country by watching the type of ads they create. In UK ads, humour often seems more important than products’ qualities.
For sure, any day, I’d rather watch Peter Kay dancing in a Marks & Spencer TV ad than hear about the quality of their beans or sprouts – or look at another badly-drawn bunch of sunflowers by Van Gogh.
R.I.P. Captain Beefheart – proof, if proof were needed, that you can still get a three-quarter page obituary in the Guardian and a mega obituary in the Daily Telegraph despite being “always cult rather than commercial” and being broke for most of your career…
Much like Vincent Van Gogh who only sold one painting in his life…
On the other hand I’ve always thought Van Gogh was a shit painter and I didn’t much admire Captain Beefheart’s music either.
But who knows?
It would be interesting to come back in 50 and then in 100 years time to see who are remembered as the great artists, bands and comedians of the 20th century. My bet is that they would be a big surprise to us.
In February 1968, Andy Warhol exhibited his first international retrospective exhibition at the Moderna Museet gallery in Stockholm. The exhibition catalogue contained the now long-remembered sentence: “In the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes.”
The 4th century Vulgate version of the Bible translates Ecclesiastes 1:2 as “Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas”.
A loose translation today might be: “Everything means fuck all”